October 6, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Marlins - Cubs


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
Chicago 88 74 .543 724 683 .530 .258 .7096
Florida 91 71 .562 751 692 .541 .266 .7039

Chicago 4.47 .259 .323 .416 172 302 492 1158
Florida 4.64 .266 .333 .421 157 292 515 978

Chicago 4.22 .241 .324 .372 143 248 617 1404
Florida 4.27 .258 .325 .396 128 300 530 1132

The playoffs can be a funny thing sometimes.

Throughout the 162-game season, there was little doubt who the best two teams in the National League were. The Atlanta Braves won 101 games and the NL East division, while the San Francisco Giants won 100 games and the NL West.

Then the playoffs came, the two best teams lost, and now we're looking at a National League Championship Series between the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs.

Of course, looking at season-long records can sometimes be a little deceiving. For one thing, the Florida Marlins fired their manager midway through the year and added one of their best pitchers a month into the season. For the Cubs, their offense has gone through quite a few changes since early in the season.

While the Marlins won just 91 games this season and the Cubs won just 88 - far cries from the 101 and 100 wins from the teams they beat in the NLDS - a look at each team's second-half record reveals slightly more dominance:

                     W      L     Win%

Florida Marlins 42 25 .627
Chicago Cubs 41 27 .603

Taking it a step further, the Florida Marlins went 75-49 (.605) under Jack McKeon, after starting the season 16-22 (.421) under Jeff Torborg.

For comparison, the Braves went 40-29 (.580) in the second-half and the Giants went 43-24 (.642). When you isolate the second-half performances of the four National League playoff teams, the gaps between them essentially disappear and it becomes a little less shocking to think that the Cubs and Marlins will be playing for a trip to the World Series.

So, while the two teams in the NLCS may not be the "best" two teams in the National League, they are pretty damn good, especially if you are of the belief that the current caliber of each team is more properly reflected in their second-half records.

With all due respect to the Atlanta Braves, the San Francisco Giants and especially Barry Lamar Bonds, this NLCS is going to be plenty exciting and interesting without their presence. I know I am ecstatic about having the opportunity to watch Mark Prior and Kerry Wood pitch a few more times, and I think the Florida Marlins have proven, both during the season and so far in the playoffs, that they are capable of some mildly entertaining games.

Let's forget about the Braves and the Giants and focus on the matchup at hand, because it's a good one. In looking at the numbers, the Marlins and the Cubs seem to be very evenly matched.

Beyond their overall and second-half win-totals, the two teams also have very similar numbers. The Marlins ranked 8th in the National League in runs scored, while the Cubs ranked 9th. The Cubs ranked 4th in the NL in runs allowed, while the Marlins ranked 6th.

They are even quite similar when you look more in-depth at their offenses. Both teams have primarily right-handed lineups and both offenses were much better this season against left-handed pitching.

Chicago Cubs

vs Right .254 .317 .412
vs Left .276 .343 .429

That's a team-wide increase of 22 points of batting average, 26 points of on-base percentage and 17 points of slugging percentage when lefties are on the mound.

Sometimes team-totals can be misleading, particularly for a team like the Cubs, who have made several changes in their lineup during the season. Of the guys Dusty Baker currently has at his disposal, he has the option of putting the following six bats in the lineup against lefties:

vs LHP

Sammy Sosa .333 .440 .571
Eric Karros .366 .441 .545
Moises Alou .346 .399 .567
Mark Grudzielanek .360 .444 .470
Ramon Martinez .346 .391 .494
Aramis Ramirez .285 .322 .562

That is a very dangerous group of lefty-mashers, although Dusty seems less than willing to commit to playing Ramon Martinez over Alex Gonzalez against all southpaws (which worked out pretty well for him in Game Five of the NLDS against Mike Hampton).

Meanwhile, Florida's everyday lineup features one left-handed hitter, one switch-hitter, and six right-handed hitters. Their top bench-player (whichever one of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell and Jeff Conine doesn't start) is also right-handed. As you might expect from an offense with all those righties, they have been much better against left-handed pitching this season:

Florida Marlins

vs Right .258 .325 .406
vs Left .292 .357 .469

That's a very large gap, much bigger than Chicago's. Using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG as the measure, the Marlins were about 12% better offensively against left-handed pitching.

For this series at least, the Cubs seem to be at an advantage in this area. Their starting rotation includes four right-handed pitchers, while Florida's includes two righties and two lefties. So, while the Cubs will get a chance to tee-off against left-handed starters multiple times during the series, the only left-handed pitching the Marlins will see will be from Chicago's bullpen.

Florida's lineup simply doesn't look very powerful when you isolate their performances against right-handed pitching:

vs RHP

CF Juan Pierre .303 .368 .377
2B Luis Castillo .312 .377 .357
C Ivan Rodriguez .274 .340 .444
1B Derrek Lee .256 .358 .486
3B Miguel Cabrera .247 .310 .429
RF Juan Encarnacion .270 .309 .456
LF Jeff Conine .281 .329 .471
SS Alex Gonzalez .251 .307 .429

3B Mike Lowell .271 .346 .484

There are some good on-base percentages at the top of that lineup, but there isn't a whole lot of power anywhere, and it is certainly not a group that is going to strike fear in guys like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. No one slugs over .500 and no one has an on-base percentage above .380. 5 of the 9 starters have a slugging percentage below .450 and 4 of the 9 have an OBP below .330.

If the Cubs had a left-handed starter, it would be a whole different story and you'd be looking at some pretty impressive numbers. Ivan Rodriguez hit .376/.460/.573 against lefties. Mike Lowell hit .295/.363/.688. Derrek Lee hit .333/.462/.600. Miguel Cabrera hit .364/.397/.655. Even Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo managed to slug .496 and .494 against lefties, respectively.

The Marlins faced just one left-handed starter in the NLDS - Kirk Rueter in Game Three. They scored 2 runs against him in the first inning, but none after that. He left after 5 innings pitched, having allowed just those 2 runs, courtesy of an Ivan Rodriguez homer.

Against right-handed pitching, the Marlins did pretty well against San Francisco. They were shutout by one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, Jason Schmidt, in Game One. But then they did very well against both Sidney Ponson and Jerome Williams in Game Two and Game Four, scoring a combined 7 runs against them in 7 innings.

Overall for the series, they hit .262/.336/.341 in 138 plate appearances against right-handed pitching and .200/.273/.500 in 22 plate appearances against lefties. Of course, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are a lot closer to Jason Schmidt than they are Ponson or Williams, so I think Florida's offense could be in trouble.

Chicago's offense has a lot of problems and Florida has a very solid and deep pitching-staff. In the end though, I think Chicago's starting pitching is simply too strong, just as I predicted it would be too much for the Atlanta Braves to handle in the first-round.

At this moment I am not 100% sure how Chicago's rotation will work out for the NLCS, other than Zambrano is definitely starting Game One. Their threesome of Prior, Wood and Zambrano is so strong (and so right-handed) that it probably doesn't even matter how you arrange them. Even Chicago #4 starter Matt Clement, who held right-handed hitters to a combined .209/.283/.322 this season, looks like a decent bet to be very effective against the Marlins' lineup.

This has the looks of a very evenly matched and potentially low-scoring series, and I like Chicago's chances of scratching and clawing their way to enough runs to win better than I like Florida's chances of roughing up Chicago's pitching-staff.

I think the Chicago Cubs are simply one of those unique teams that is much better built for the post-season than they are the regular season. They no longer have to worry about starting Shawn Estes every fifth game and they don't have to rely on the bottom of their bullpen to get outs anymore.

Instead, they can lean entirely on Prior, Wood and Zambrano, with a little Clement thrown in, and they can shorten the bullpen enough so that they are counting on only a few guys, most notably their very capable bullpen trio of Mike Remlinger, Kyle Farnsworth and Joe Borowski. Even their offensive problems are less of an issue in the post-season, because they don't need to score as many runs to win when Prior and Wood are tossing gems.

Cubs in six.

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